Nothing to fear but fur

David Feela - 02/20/2020

When I resided in the country, dogs often rushed down their driveways to meet me as I bicycled past, growling, barking and having themselves a canine tantrum, objecting to my presence on the road. I understood then and now that dogs have a wider view of what constitutes their territory. Drivers may need to slow down and make sure they don’t accidentally hurt the frenzied beast chasing their car, but when out bicycling a lonely road, I use a different strategy: If I see the dog early enough and there’s no traffic, it becomes a race, the dog and me, and sometimes I win.

Still, it’s important to take the rural dog situation seriously. One time an untethered dog caught me unawares and nipped at my front tire, perhaps thinking of it as a chew toy. Things could have been worse if he’d become preoccupied with my pant leg or ankle.

The times when I couldn’t win the race, I turned around and, with an equally fierce determination, chased the dog back up its own driveway. Rarely did an owner step outside to exclaim, “bad dog!” More often, nobody came out to check on the commotion. A few times as I approached the house, I noticed a curtain fall back into place, and then I knew I’d found a home where a human lacked the courage of a dog.  

These days I live within the city limits where dogs are restrained by ordinance. A leash, a fence, a gate – some kind of control governs unexpected encounters between people and dogs. It’s a near perfect solution, except I know how deeply within a dog the instinct to run still exists, like that primal urge to howl.

Whoever first remarked that a dog’s bark is worse than its bite might have been walking beside me through my neighborhood where a pedestrian on the sidewalk can’t avoid encountering a dog lunging at a fence. Some neighbors who have two, three or even four dogs need to look up the word cacophony in a dictionary.

I’m not worried as I walk by that the dogs will leap the fence and eat my shorts. And it’s not that I don’t have any compassion for their situation, being stuck in the yard. It’s more like a car alarm honking by accident when the owner doesn’t understand how to turn it off, or a child screaming at the top of his lungs in a store as the parent ignores the outburst and simply continues shopping. You know, that kind of annoyance.

Moving out of earshot, I feel sympathy for the next-door neighbor who doesn’t own a dog but is subjected to intermittent periods – day or night – of dog yapping, often a substitute for giving the dog a proper exercise. Historically, people kept dogs for hunting and protection, especially to function as a kind of alarm should their livestock or even their lives be menaced by marauders. These days security cameras do the same thing, quietly. Even a simple porch light can behave so it suddenly sprays a pool of light at anyone who steps too close to its motion-activated detector. Dog owners may also be thinking of their pets as organic alarms, or maybe they’re simply not thinking. 

But the fidelity of a dog is admirable. These companions recognize the sound of their owner’s approaching vehicle and are anxiously awaiting, tails wagging, excitement rippling under the fur, even before the motor can be shut off.

I came close to owning a dog once, one that wandered into my rural acreage as I set off for a morning walk along an irrigation ditch. I unfastened the chain and he joined me, as if opening my gate signaled an invitation. Once through, he led the way, running ahead but always looking back, waiting for me to catch up. The dog’s name turned out to be Doogie, according to a neighbor who pointed up the road to where the dog lived. That neighbor’s name was Doug.

Doogie showed up almost every day I went for a hike, and he didn’t come along because I offered treats, though he graciously accepted a little water. With the freedom to wander anywhere he chose, for some reason he latched onto me. He liked to chase rabbits and birds or whatever twitched at the side of the ditch, but his heart wasn’t in it. Then, after a couple months, he just disappeared. I walked up the road to see if he was home. The man who lived there told me he didn’t own a dog.

I’m telling you this because your dog pretends to have just met me every time I walk past your yard. I’ve been by a hundred times, maybe more. And if I step up to the fence to re-introduce myself, the barking gets worse. Maybe you noticed. Maybe not. Either way, this golden rule applies: a bark that goes unheeded is a bark that is unneeded.

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